Rancilio Silvia Review

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#1: Post by HB »

When I suggested that the Rancilio Silvia should be among the first espresso machines reviewed under the site's new streamlined format, some members wondered why I would bother. Over the last 10+ years, Silvia is unquestionably the most heavily discussed and documented home espresso machine on the Internet. Perhaps counter-intuitively, that's precisely why skipping the Rancilio Silvia would seem like an error of omission. Besides, it was my first "real" espresso machine, so admittedly I look forward to seeing how my 2003 review holds up today given my added experience and test techniques.

So partially for comprehensiveness, partially for nostalgia, this weekend I got reacquainted with an old friend:

Rancilio Silvia evaluation model courtesy of Seattle Coffee Gear

The casing is brushed stainless steel with exposed black powercoat frame; it blends well with modern kitchens, especially those featuring stainless steel appliances. Silvia's countertop footprint is small, allowing plenty of working space in front of the machine. The driptray is very shallow; you'll need a catch container for flushing water through the group, otherwise it will need emptying every second shot.

Since its introduction over 10 years ago, Rancilio has made esthetic and functional improvements every few years. The evaluation model shown above is known as "version 3". It includes a newly designed steam wand that rotates on a ball joint. As one of the many newbies who struggled with the multi-hole steam tip on the old Silvia long ago, I welcomed the new beginner-friendly one-hole steam tip. The steam boiler produces ample volume and velocity, which makes it easy to roll the 8-10 ounces of milk latte lovers in the US demand.

If you search for how-tos on the Rancilio Silvia, you'll find gigabytes of suggestions on getting the best out of this espresso machine. It isn't my intent to rehash the already formidable collection of information, but instead I'll highlight the best tips, especially those tips geared towards the Silvia's target demographic, first-time buyers.

UPDATE: Read the final writeup Rancilio Silvia Review.
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#2: Post by HB (original poster) »

Years ago I documented a "reverse temperature surf" technique for the Rancilio Silvia on CoffeeGeek that produced consistent brew temperatures time-after-time, but it was really tedious. Mark Prince's flush-n-go technique shown in his 2007 video is more time efficient and nearly as accurate. Wish I had figured out this trick in my Silvia days!
I confirmed what Mark said in the video about the brew temperature with a Scace thermofilter, i.e., that approximately 2 seconds past the end of flash boiling, the brewhead temperature would peak around 202°F. As the pour progresses, the brewhead temperature falls around 4°F from its high temperature.

Why this flush trick works is worth a more thorough explanation.

Temperature surfing explained

Because of the heat loss from boiler to grouphead, the brew boilers of all espresso machines are set above the target brew temperature. The magnitude of that offset varies among different espresso machine group designs. According to an Auber Instruments study of the Rancilio Silvia, its boiler offset is 15 to 18°F above the brew temperature, which means the boiler's temperature rises well above the boiling point of water. As a result, if you draw water from the boiler soon after the heating element turns off, the exiting water will flash boil to steam at atmospheric pressure, making the telltale sizzling sound. By flushing the boiler, the overheated water in the boiler quickly cools to brew temperature range. This "surfing" to the desired brew temperature explains the origin of this Silvia ritual.

Careful observers will note this technique relies on the flush-n-go technique, similar to the heat exchanger brew temperature management technique described in How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love HXs. Other espresso machines have their own water flushing regime prior to starting the extraction. Whatever the specifics of the technique may be, the purpose of the flush is the same: Establish a temperature equilibrium, albeit fleeting, prior to starting the extraction.
Dan Kehn

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#3: Post by HB (original poster) »

The requisite bottomless espresso pour:
The dose was 16.5 grams in a large Faema-style basket. The deeper basket allows for greater headroom, so there's more time for preinfusion as the gap between the dispersion screen and puck surface fills. What's interesting about the above pour isn't how it looks, but how frequently beginning home baristas assume a good looking pour is a sure sign of good tasting espresso. It's not.

Newbie Introduction to Espresso - Barista Mechanics introduces the basic shot-building steps all home baristas must master. I plan to make one or two more videos continuing the steps covered in the first of the series, but the more challenging (and rewarding) topic is diagnosing taste defects caused by barista errors (e.g., incorrect dose, grind setting, pour speed, brew temperature). During the course of shooting a series of extractions like the above, I focused on mechanics, but neglected important steps like brew temperature management. As a consequence, the brew temperature was all over the map and the taste varied from sour to dull to spot on.

In summary, you must master the mechanics so you can consistently produce the same extraction characteristics, but to unlock a coffee's potential, you must master problem diagnostics by taste. This explains, in a long-winded way, why I taste every shot, even those pulled for a video demonstration.
Dan Kehn

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#4: Post by HB (original poster) »

The Rancilio Silvia Flash Review was the site's first review and it was based on a consumer writeup I posted on CoffeeGeek back in 2003. The model I owned was an "original" design, i.e., it didn't have the improved steam wand of the current model. That explains one of my comments in the review:
HB wrote:Getting "latte art" quality microfoam was my biggest challenge and Silvia's most evident weakness, I believe owing to the rise and fall of steam forcefulness that occurs as the boiler cycles on and off. This isn't to suggest that you can't produce an admirable result-it's just far from a no-brainer.
Back then, countless online Silvia fans sought technique suggestions and replacement options for the stock multi-hole steam tip. Evidently Rancilio listened, because the current model's steam tip is much more newbie friendly. It has a single hole and the boiler pressure is steadier.
Steaming 8 ounces in 45 seconds

Some of the steps I wrote for maximizing the steaming performance in the original review are outdated. Today's simpler steps are:
  1. Purge condensation from the steam the wand
  2. Steam milk, surfing slightly under the surface to inject air until milk is warm
  3. Immerse tip and angle it to produce a nice rolling rise from top-side-bottom-top circulation
  4. Keep warming milk to serving temperature (around 150°F)
  5. Turn off steam, wipe wand, and pour.
If you have the misfortune to start steaming at the very bottom of the heating cycle, purge steam for 10 seconds, close the valve for 20 seconds, then start again as the boiler reheats. Thanks to the swivel steam arm and 1-hole tip, even first-time home baristas should have little trouble producing top-notch microfoam.
Dan Kehn

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#5: Post by HB (original poster) »

During the research phase of a review, not everything goes as planned:
Minor goofs are usually edited out

The first clip was the first espresso of the session. I dosed/distributed/tamped like I have thousands of times before; no idea what went wrong. The second clip is just one of those things. I either didn't tighten the portafilter sufficiently or there was some coffee grounds left on the grouphead gasket. Drip drip drip it goes.

One of my unstated goals of the last few days is judging the Rancilio Silvia's forgiveness factor. If you've read a sample of the many "I'm a New Silvia Owner, Help!" type threads, you know that this popular entry-level espresso machine has a reputation for being finicky. Is it justified?

Jim spelled out why entry-level equipment as a class get a bad rap:
another_jim wrote:Newbies invariably attribute their inability to pull two identical shots in a row to the lack of sufficient equipment settings they can change between shots. The fact is that the entry level equipment used by newbies is much more unforgiving than the commercial equipment people buy after they decide they'll pursue home espresso. This creates a double whammy, the people with technique good enough to use entry level equipment have moved beyond it; and the people buying it will have their weaknesses mercilessly exposed. The upshot is that entry level equipment gets a lot of unfair criticism; and that newbies get a very long hazing learning to cope with it.
To make matters worse, many first-time buyers economize on the grinder under the assumption that it doesn't matter (it just reduces coffee beans to powder, right?). Plainly stated, It's the Grinder, Stupid.

In my initial testing, I use a commercial conical grinder, the Compak K10 Pro, so the grinder isn't the weakest link. While Silvia did exhibit minor fussiness, the majority of extractions were even from start to finish. The taste inconsistencies I noted from shot-to-shot occurred when I skipped the temperature surfing step because of video production futzing. Before wrapping up this review, I'll return to the question of forgiveness factor when Silvia is paired with a grinder priced closer to what first-timers would buy (e.g., Baratza Vario or Baratza Preciso).
Dan Kehn

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HB (original poster)

#6: Post by HB (original poster) »

This morning was our regular Friday morning get-together at Counter Culture Coffee, so I took advantage of a good turnout to hold a quick taste test with the Rancilio Silvia. The coffee was Rustico, which lately has been a delightful chocolate light-fruit forward espresso.

Since I was busy taking photos, Ian agreed to pull shots. I explained temperature surfing and together we dialed Silvia in. In the photo below, Ian was doing the mini-flush and wait step... several times. He's getting a little impatient:

Anticipation is making me late... Anticipation is keeping me waiting

We had previously dialed in the Strada and used the same basket/dose/grind with Silvia, but initial extractions suffered massive channeling (and I really mean massive!). The puck showed a deep screw impression. The Rancilio Silvia doesn't appreciate updosing, so we reduced the dose by 1 gram and tightened the grind setting by 1.5 notches on a Mazzer Robur. Voilà:

Nice even pull with good color

Earlier in the session, we considered doing a blind side-by-side taste test. But it was clear after a few test espressos that the difference was obvious. Ian described the Strada espressos as more complex with both chocolate and fruit notes; the Rancilio Silvia espressos tended to one or the other depending on the dose (higher dose -> chocolates, lower dose -> fruits).

Thanks Ian, Walt, Bob, Nick, and Winston for your help! Feel free to chime in with your impressions of the morning's session.

Winston Shieh samples espresso from the final round

Tonight's post to this thread wraps up my first impressions of the Rancilio Silvia and our impromptu group taste test. After an intermission to allow for comments/questions/corrections, I'll take a closer look at its espresso performance.
Dan Kehn

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#7: Post by heavyduty »

Dan, I was just wondering if the OPV on the Silvia you are using has been adjusted or is it factory set?
Also, I've never played around with preinfusion on mine. Do you have an opinion on the best way to do this (maybe even a video) and if it truly helps?
Tomorrow came sooner than expected.


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#8: Post by MountRoyal »

Thanks for the review, this is really interesting. Do you believe that the screw was the main cause of the channeling? I'm a Silvia owner and am constantly trying to improve my shots, one of the things I've considered doing was buying a flat shower screen screw from PIDSilvia. I wonder if this would be a noticeable improvement, well, there is the down dosing that you already did too. It would be interesting to see your tests with a PID and also with OPV adjustments (that's what I'm currently fiddling with). Would a lower pressure diminish the channeling? I've lowered mine and I think I've found slight general improvements but still run into channeling issues sometimes.

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#9: Post by HB (original poster) »

heavyduty wrote:Dan, I was just wondering if the OPV on the Silvia you are using has been adjusted or is it factory set?
I checked brew pressure when it arrived with a Scace II thermofilter and it was 9 bar at double espresso flow rates, so I didn't bother with over-pressure valve adjustments. If you pull lots of ristrettos (and thus the OPV is necessary to reduce the maximum pressure), it's worth adjusting the OPV. I still don't get it: Why adjust the OPV? explains this point at length.
heavyduty wrote:Also, I've never played around with preinfusion on mine. Do you have an opinion on the best way to do this (maybe even a video) and if it truly helps?
If you want to experiment with it, see Don's Rancilio Silvia Preinfusion Technique, summarized below:
vanboom wrote:1. grind, tamp, etc.
2. place a pitcher under the steam wand
3. set the steam valve slightly snug (allowing some water to flow at a very slow rate out of the steam wand)
4. lock in portafilter
5. press the brew switch: listen to the sound the water is making through the machine
6. tighten the steam valve a second or two after you hear the puck fill (yes, you can HEAR it)
7. finish extraction
If you listen carefully to the second pull of the "blooper" video above, you'll hear the pump tone change because I was following the above procedure. I also tried "prewetting" the puck by flicking on the pump for 2 seconds, waiting 2 seconds, then starting the pump again for the extraction. Both techniques do increase the margin of error a tiny bit. Personally I prefer using a deeper basket instead like the EspressoParts 14 gram or 21 gram. The extra headroom allows an extra second or two for prewetting the puck.
MountRoyal wrote:Do you believe that the screw was the main cause of the channeling?
The screw didn't cause the channeling, it indicated the puck clearance was insufficient. The Rancilio Silvia, in my experience, demands extra headspace to allow the water to more evenly diffuse over the surface of the puck prior to full pressurization. I would only replace the stock screw if I wanted prettier looking pucks post-extraction. :lol:
MountRoyal wrote:It would be interesting to see your tests with a PID...
Long answer: Rancilio Silvia Flash Review - PID temperature controller. Short answer: Adding a PID eliminates the need to temperature surf and thus increases convenience and potentially consistency, but for a patient, skilled barista, it doesn't change Silvia's espresso potential.
MountRoyal wrote:Would a lower pressure diminish the channeling?
Yes, lower brew pressure increases your margin of error. I recommend adjusting it to around 9 bar. But don't take my word for it, try it yourself. To really get an idea of what's affected, bracket the results with a good delta between each set. For example, try the brew pressure at 7 bar, 9 bar, and 11 bar for a few days each and then narrow in on the one you prefer. Typically the lower pressure settings will channel less, but crema production will suffer and the taste may go flat. At higher pressures, crema production peaks, but the risk of channeling increases and the taste may go bitter/acrid.
Dan Kehn

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#10: Post by heavyduty »

HB wrote: Personally I prefer using a deeper basket instead like the EspressoParts 14 gram or 21 gram.
I have these two baskets and highly recommend them. I have no problem with the screw or head space. Just take your Rancilio stock basket and throw it in the @!#*% trash.
HB wrote:Yes, lower brew pressure increases your margin of error. I recommend adjusting it to around 9 bar. But don't take my word for it, try it yourself.
I pull lots of ristrettos. About 8 months ago I wasn't happy with the taste of my shots. A good thorough cleaning didn't help. I figured it was the pressure or my grinder burrs. Then my machine started making a noise kind of like a fan belt slipping. I took the water tank lid off and watched as I pulled a shot. I saw a lot of water coming back into the tank thru the return hose. I decided to adjust the OPV. A quick google gets you lots of info on that. I turned it half a turn counter clockwise. The noise that it had been making stopped. I later decided to make a portafilter gauge. The gauge showed a little over 9 bars, which I believe actually makes it to be ~9 bar. If I can do it, anyone can. I get marginally less crema, but my shots definitely improved taste wise.
Tomorrow came sooner than expected.